North Dakota Outdoors: Easing concerns over an early fishing season

Each week I close my column with my contact email information. Later, when the inbox dings to signal a new message has arrived, I’m never certain what the pretense for the email is, but I do enjoy the electronic communication.
 Recently a reader took issue with an explanation I previously provided regarding harvest of big fish in the spring prior to the time that either walleyes or northern pike have spawned for the year.
 Because North Dakota has a year-round fishing season for game fish, this is not an uncommon question. Some anglers wonder whether we should have a closed season, or alternately, whether we should have some type of fish length restriction that would reduce harvest of larger fish.
Rather than me trying to reinvent the wheel in addressing these concerns, North Dakota Game and Fish Director Terry Steinwand provided some excellent insight in his column in the March/April issue of North Dakota Outdoors, the state Game and Fish Department’s magazine. Following is a summary of that column.
 In 1993 Game and Fish made the decision to have a year-round fishing season statewide. At the time, the Missouri River System was already open to walleye and pike harvest year-round, but the “game fish” season was closed in the rest of the state from mid-March to early May, a regulation that dated back at least into the 1930s.
 Before implementing a year-round season, biologists evaluated the pros and cons. At the time the concern wasn’t so much whether anglers would over-harvest prespawn fish, but whether eliminating a traditional fishing opener would dampen fishing enthusiasm.
 In nearly two decades since then, the year-round season has been mostly well received. Anglers like the extra opportunity, and biologically, any additional harvest of prespawn fish has not shown to be a detriment to any of our fishing waters.
 However, every spring, and maybe this spring more than most because we have open water statewide so early, we hear concerns from anglers who witness or see pictures of people keeping some big, heavy, egg-bearing female pike or walleye caught from lakeshores or below dams, or in constricted rivers or channels.
 While these fish are potential producers, we all know that there are more out there that are not being caught; and each having tens of thousands of eggs. It’s basically a numbers game for fish.
 For the most part, a stringer full of big walleyes or pike taken before the spawning run may make the anglers look like game hogs in the eyes of some, but it doesn’t hurt the fishery any more than catching and keeping those same fish over Memorial Day weekend. Most anglers release those big fish without a regulation that makes it a requirement.
 That said, experimental or restrictive regulations are always an option if it appears there is a need and the regulation can be fairly evaluated in a manner that produces reliable results, so we know it was the right thing to do for the fishery in the long term.
 Fisheries biologists annually assess adult fish populations and reproduction on major waters, and Game and Fish monitors fishing success through creel surveys as well. These findings are essential in determining if and when regulation changes are needed. 
It’s a good thing to have concerned anglers and hunters who ask the Game and Fish Department, through electronic communications or otherwise, for more restrictions when they feel our resources may be threatened.
 Whether you choose to keep big fish or release them, it’s going to be a great year for fishing in North Dakota.
Leier is a biologist with the Game and Fish Department. He can be reached by email: